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A Preseason Warning: Featuring Cover 3 Buzz Mable and Tedric Thompson

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Seattle Seahawks v Los Angeles Ram Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

It’s funny how one play can influence opinions of a player.

Going into the 2017 preseason, there was lots of excitement surrounding the prospect of watching the free safety who the Seattle Seahawks decided to spend a fourth round pick on. The rangy, ball-hawking Tedric Thompson, now understudy to Earl Thomas, was sure to impress against second-rate competition.

But then this happened last year against the LA Chargers:

Suddenly concerns about Thompson’s 4.60 forty time were raised. Fans reiterated their appreciation of Earl while Thompson was written off in most circles. “He can’t compete against second stringers”, “He’s not an NFL player,” and “He’s just too slow” were commonplace critiques.

Wrong. Speed at deep safety is not the sole provider of range: Instincts, processing and ball skills from the deep middle third are far more important. Thompson has these in abundance. (Don’t forget he had an interception through being in the right place at the right time, catching a tipped pass in Week 2 of the preseason versus Minnesota.)

If you really want to get into his athletic profile, his mockdraftable compares most similarly to one of the most underrated single-high safeties in the league: Tre Boston. More pertinently, KJ Wright’s comments last week on the “Driving with Gee” video series reiterate that there is more to speed than a forty-yard-dash time:

There is track speed, there is combine speed and then there is playing speed. Pete Carroll confirmed the impressive performances of Thompson on 710 ESPN Seattle:

It’s worth looking at that Chargers touchdown in more detail:

Forty-Yard...Yawn

This was Thompson’s first time facing a verticals concept versus an NFL team, and his 4.60 speed had nothing to do with the actual completion. It shouldn’t be a shock that Thompson can’t, at a disadvantageous pursuit angle, catch an absolute burner in Travis Benjamin.

Benjamin ran a 4.36 forty-yard-dash.

Furthermore, the Atlanta Falcons--based around a Single-High Cover 3 similar to the Seahawks--leave the massively underrated Ricardo Allen back there and succeed on defense. Allen, recently signed to a 3-year $19million deal, ran a 4.61.

Cover 3 Buzz Mable

Seattle was in nickel personnel versus an 11 personnel (1 running back, 1 tight end) empty set.

Post-game, Carroll stated the obvious: “We misplayed the play”. On the TV copy, you can diagnose that the Seahawks were in a Cover 3, and immediately the blame gets attributed to Thompson. Watching the All-22, it becomes clear that the coverage was a Cover 3 Buzz Mable. This is crucial.

Majorly relevant is the thinking behind running Cover 3 Buzz Mable versus trips. The idea is that on the backside you man up your players, and that you can play zone to the trips side. Essentially, you are pushing the coverage to the passing strength.

Against a flood concept, this is fantastic. But, with the #3 receiver (Benjamin) running his go route into the other side of the field--the man coverage/cover 0 side--Terence Garvin as the free ‘backer has to run with him.

Here’s the playart:

Cover 3 Buzz Mable
Matthew Brown

(The “Buzz” part signifies the Strong Safety moving down into the box and the “Mable” is code for the man coverage)

The style of pass defense is already likely to be beaten versus this design, as it asks the linebacker to run with an absolute speedster. No defense can stop every play, but remember: this is the preseason for the coaches too.

What’s more, with the defense being executed so horrendously, Thompson is put in an even more impossible position to make the play. Garvin is slow to drop, possibly giving some attention to the backside tight end hitch. This delay is something he can ill-afford, given the clear speed discrepancy between him and Benjamin.

The 65-yard catch-and-run touchdown is not the fault of Thompson. His assignment means that he must pick up #2’s seam route too.

Keep in mind that Seattle is trying to evaluate players in the preseason. Seeing if Garvin could execute the deep middle drop of Mable coverage, something that Bobby Wagner can do, is a big evaluation tool. How restricted is he?

The gift of a free Release

Thompson and Garvin’s tasks are made even harder by the lack of disruption on the #3 receiver. Michael Wilhoite, lined up over Benjamin, is outside of the 5-yard “disruption window.” He therefore makes zero contact, even with the receiver coming into his space.

This lack of re-direction means that Garvin has no margin for error and Thompson has even less time to try work his way over the third vertical route after trying to apex the #3 and #2 receivers (his drop could have been slightly deeper and a step to the left, but that’s irrelevant given how the play transpires). Benjamin’s gift of a free release is massively disadvantageous for both Garvin and Thompson.

Oddly enough, Seattle showed much better disruption on their last defensive snap, a turnover. Observe what transpires when the man over #3 helps the safety out in such a scenario:

But Earl would have made the play!

So at this point I can hear people bellowing that Earl Thomas would have made the play. Well he had that “chance” versus the Green Bay Packers in Week 1 of 2014:

Though the Seahawks run the 3 Buzz Mable better than they did in the preseason match-up, it is still an impossible task for Thomas--with the fate of the play utterly dependent on the inside linebacker. Wagner executes better than Garvin, having no backside hitch route to halt him, but he ends up committing pass interference deep down the field.

Vanilla Preseason Scheme

Against this three verticals concept the 3 Buzz Mable playcall is something the coaches would obviously want to avoid when it matters. Rushing four players, leaving just three deep zones and having a linebacker carry the #3 receiver versus the concept is risky. The vanilla preseason scheme does not match what Seattle employed in the regular season versus empty sets.

They frequently protected their defensive backs by going with split-safeties and playing Quarters, Cover 2 or Tampa 2--even with Earl on the field. With Kris Richard departed and Ken Norton calling the plays, they may change subtle things. But Carroll has been running two-high concepts on clear passing downs way before his Seahawks days.

Factor in Context

This, then, is the context that has to be considered when watching preseason football. To blame this on Thompson is to ignore the nature of the playcall and the inexperience of other players. Obliviousness to the facts negatively impacted the perception of Thompson’s ability. Thompson didn’t get torched, the entire defense did.

The flaws of putting too much stock into one single play have affected a big chunk of the fanbase’s opinion of Thompson. I was guilty of this myself, not noticing the surrounding storm which made Thompson’s task so difficult.

So: when watching the Seahawks this preseason, don’t forget that things are not as they first appear. Context must be factored in accordingly.

As for Thompson, I expect the second-year safety to have a fantastic three games.